“You are an amazing family,” Gordon Ramsay tells the Sexy Paesans, a group of cousins from Long Island, New York, as they sweat under a sea of heavy-duty studio lights. They’re tasked with cooking one of the chef’s recipes — Alaskan salmon with succotash and fingerling potatoes — for a dining room full of hungry guests who are expecting a proper Gordon Ramsay restaurant experience.
In addition to feeding the masses, the Sexy Paesans are trying to out-cook their competitors, four buddies from Nashville, Tennessee — the “Spice Boys” — who are preparing the exact same recipe for their half of the dining room. The entire service is being broadcast live on television, so any sloppy succotash platings or undercooked filets will be piped into literally millions of households across the country, in real time. Ramsay, a guy who has spent the last 15 years yelling at amateur chefs on TV, has one last word for the Sexy Paesans before leaving the kitchen: “I’ve tasted the food, I’ve tasted the passion, I’ve been to your house — bring all that passion, heart, commitment tonight onto the plate.”
After blasting through 16 seasons of Hell’s Kitchen and more than a hundred episodes of Masterchef and its kid-centric spinoff, Gordon Ramsay decided it was time to riffle through his back catalog and reboot a program that had been a success in the UK over seven years ago. The F Word is a hybrid of a cooking competition and variety show where Ramsay is the host and center of a jittery culinary universe. Part of the appeal of this hour-long Fox summer series is that you get to see all of Gordon’s disparate TV personalities coexisting on the same stage — the exasperated kitchen hard-ass, the family man, the adrenaline junky, the comedian, the teacher, and the daffy master of ceremonies.
The other novel addition to the food TV cannon is the fact that Ramsay and his crew built a fully functional restaurant on a Hollywood soundstage that only serves guests for one hour each week — live, on television, in real time. As I found out by attending a taping of the premiere, this is no small feat.
When you enter The F Word’s restaurant on the Raleigh Studios backlot, it looks and feels like a big-city hot spot, like you might read about on the Eater Heatmap — that is, until you gaze up at all the studio lights hanging from the ceiling and the crane rig swooping through the room. The restaurant has four massive walls, with an open kitchen in the center of the space, multiple dining alcoves, and a large semicircular bar in one corner, directly beneath a sprawling balcony. Around 200 people have dinner here during the hour-long taping each week.
The crowd on night one is a mix of Fox employees, friends of the show, and professional extras, although a rep assures me that fans will fill these slots in the coming week — and indeed, according to the official ticketing site, reservations are nearly sold out through the rest of the summer. Twenty minutes before taping begins, a producer gets on the mic to tell the guests that the kitchen is hot, there are no bathroom breaks, please don’t use your cell phone, everyone gets two alcoholic drinks, the crew can call you an Uber if you need it, enjoy the restaurant, and do not focus on Gordon during taping. That last instruction is the one that’s really hard to follow, because Ramsay is everywhere.
Once the cameras start rolling, servers take drink orders and drop bread baskets — an assortment of fancypants artisan rolls and slices of rustic country loaves — as well as platters of salumi, Italian cheese, and olives. No entree orders are taken, because the two kitchen teams this evening, the Sexy Paesans and the Spice Boys, are preparing the same dish — that Alaskan salmon — for the entire restaurant. Water glasses are filled as soon as they’re empty, plates are dropped in unison, and everything’s cleared swiftly and efficiently once the food is finished. Aside from the random flashes of Gordon being pursued by a camera crew through the room, the experience feels almost eerily like dining at any other big-city 200-seat restaurant.
The food is not bad. At my table full of strangers, two of the four orders of salmon are lightly (but not fatally) undercooked. Everything on the plate is properly seasoned and nicely arranged. When we ask which team prepared our meals, our server kindly explains that they came from a back kitchen, because the contestants are only making food for the guests down on the main level, who are voting. Fair enough — this set-up makes sense considering that all the guests get their food at the exact same time throughout the restaurant. If The F Word doesn’t work out, this team could make a killing doing wedding catering.
Even for someone like Ramsay, who has dozens of restaurants around the world, including some Michelin darlings, it’s no simple task to build a colossus that flows and functions smoothly on night one. This is basically a pop-up that only exists for one hour per week, primarily as a backdrop. And yet, the studio restaurant exhibits none of the awkward pacing and sloppy service that plague most pop-ups. It’s clear that Ramsay and his team actually give a shit about this live-for-TV-only restaurant. But I wonder just why, exactly, they care so much about the little details. What are they hoping to achieve here?
“I like that double-edged sword of the unknown territory when you’re cooking live. Whether it’s an incredible cook-off or an emotional breakdown, food is compelling — it’s of that moment,” Ramsay explains a few days after the premiere. The original U.K. iteration of The F Word was not taped live, but Ramsay wanted to raise the stakes a bit for the American audience. “These families, they come in on Tuesday, they get the feel of a kitchen, but cooking inside an empty restaurant, there’s no atmosphere, it’s quite bleak — like playing football inside an empty stadium,” he says.
“But when that stadium fills up, and there’s 90,000 people watching you, or when that restaurant fills up and there’s 150 guests waiting to be served and millions of people watching you live, then you genuinely do wake up and get your shit together.“
Although amateur chefs are cooking the food on camera, the rest of the restaurant operations are carried out by staffers plucked from high-end restaurant groups — a gaggle of “absolute thoroughbreds,” in Ramsay’s words. Chefs Mary Keledjian and Ben Kronick are veterans of Joël Robuchon’s restaurants. Another member of the team, Kesha Tatro, worked with Wolfgang Puck before coming to The F Word. And the person mixing the drinks, Charity Johnson, is a bar manager at Roku, a trendy restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
Producer David Friedman, a veteran of The Early Show and Last Call with Carson Daly, says that Gordon and the F Word crew drew inspiration from restaurants in London, New York, and LA when they were putting together this space. “From the beginning, the goal of this show was to create this real, live functioning restaurant,” Friedman explains. “We really wanted to cut through what you typically see on television, and create this energy, this ambience, this actually true, real dining experience.” Of course, a real dining experience is one where things occasionally go wrong, either in the front or the back of the house, and in the F Word restaurant, both spaces are on full display for all of America to see. From a TV production standpoint, this is not a bad thing.
Unlike pre-taped programs like Top Chef or Chopped, on The F Word, the producers can’t use the editing room to build storylines or amp up the intensity of the competition. But with a live environment, they do have some variables to play with, like the dish challenges and the volume that’s expected of the amateur chefs. Director Alex Rudzinski, who recently directed Grease Live! for Fox, points out that the choice of protein in the premiere — Alaskan salmon — was intentional. “That fish was chosen for a reason, because it really does put a lot of pressure on them to get the level of perfection, for the fish to be plated, and for people to have a rewarding meal at the standard they would expect from a Gordon Ramsay restaurant,” Rudzinksi says. “I think that was a great choice for us — we got a lot of story out of it.”
The decision to film the show live was also inspired, at least partially, by the emerging popularity of event television. “Broadcasters are absolutely looking for more live programming, live competitions, and live events,” Friedman says. “Social media’s obviously huge, so if it’s a live event, more things can happen, and, by the way, more things can go wrong.” The producer points to the 2017 Oscars mix-up and Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe flub as two examples of live TV mishaps that became major pop-culture moments. Reflecting on the pageant debacle, Friedman notes: “If that had happened on a show that was post-produced and edited, you might never have seen it.” So far, after three episodes, The F Word team members haven’t filmed any major accidents or meltdowns, but the threat of a kitchen debacle always lurks at the edges of the screen.
During the duration of the hourlong show, Ramsay manages to do everything that he’s famous for doing on TV and across the internet. You see him visit a real-life kitchen in a pre-taped bit (a la Kitchen Nightmares), instruct amateur cooks (a la Masterchef), direct a live dinner service (a la Hell’s Kitchen), and demonstrate how to prepare an essential dish (a la Masterclass). And, new for American television, you also get to watch Gordon critique food photos from his fans (a la @gordonramsay), interview his celebrity pals (a la The Nightly Show), stage hidden camera pranks (a la Cookalong Live), and hang out with his family (a la Matilda and the Ramsay Bunch). There’s really nothing new here, except for the living restaurant churning in the background. In that sense, it’s easy to think of The F Word as Ramsay’s version of playing his greatest hits, live.
Judging by the ratings, America is happy to let the Ramsay hit parade keep rolling. And if the show keeps humming along as it has been so far, Ramsay might even consider bringing his act on the road. “We are definitely interested in taking The F Word, more than anything, across America, live, maybe into theaters on a live tour,” Ramsay says. This potential live tour is more appealing to him than, say, opening a permanent restaurant, along the lines of the real-life Hell’s Kitchen that he’s building in Vegas. “I get more excited about slowing down next year and then going around America hitting major cities and doing a live tour, working with chefs closely in that city, and putting on a live show — that excites me first, before opening a restaurant.”
Immediately after the cameras stopped rolling and the winners of the competition — the Sexy Paesans — took their bows and photo ops with Ramsay, I headed home to catch my show during its West Coast broadcast. Watching The F Word on TV, the restaurant and its guests look somehow sharper than they did in real life. I’m impressed by how smoothly the action flows through the busy restaurant, and how much stuff happens during the taping that I didn’t know about.
I knew Snoop Dogg was going to be on the show because I overheard some PAs talking about finding him a space on the backlot where he could smoke before the cameras started rolling, but I didn’t know that the Dogfather and his kids were dining directly under where I was seated on the balcony. Similarly, I had no idea that Jamie Foxx was hanging out at the bar, or that Ramsay’s teenage son and daughter were having dinner at a table on the ground floor, near the kitchen.
The F Word is a carefully calibrated television circus, with one of TV’s most famous chefs playing the ringleader. On paper, this sounds like a questionable choice for network TV in 2017: yet another cooking show, but with comedy bits and random interviews. But Ramsay and his team, apparently, know what America wants to watch more than America knows what it wants to watch: If you load a live show with enough action and potential for surprises, and throw a few celebrities into the mix, it's a spectacle that feels loose and unpredictable, even if things run oddly smoothly behind the scenes.
Greg Morabito is a senior editor at Eater.
Editor: Erin DeJesus